- Suetonius the Biographer: Studies in Roman Lives ed. by Tristan Power, Roy K. Gibson
Suetonius is often dismissed as a “second-class” writer, doubtless because of the inevitable comparison with Tacitus, whose historical works cover much of the same material. The purpose of this well-edited volume is to offer a more balanced assessment of Suetonius’ literary qualities, as exhibited especially in the Lives of the Caesars, and to advance thought-provoking theses on some of his lesser known works. Overall, this engaging volume succeeds in advancing our understanding of Suetonius.
In the introduction, Tristan Power states the aims of the book, assesses it in relation to the most recent scholarship, and outlines the general features of a Suetonian Life. In part 1, three chapters examine the structural features of the Lives of the Caesars. Donna Hurley discusses the “rubric sandwich,” drawing attention to the variety that each book displays (with Augustus serving as the model), thus proving that, far from being a mere collector of facts, Suetonius followed a plan and exhibited literary awareness. This is further validated by Power’s analysis of the closing sections of the Lives, which often allude to either the beginning of the following or the ending of the previous Life. Evidently, Suetonius paid attention to structure. Thus, Power suggests, in spite of Syme’s opinion that Suetonius had originally planned only the first six Lives, all the Lives were “published under Hadrian prior to Suetonius’ dismissal” (77). Cynthia Damon looks closely at Suetonius’ style, which she believes to be more sophisticated than generally observed. In his use of quotations, in particular, Suetonius is comparable to Tacitus’ sententiae: in both cases, their placement at a significant moment achieves the maximum effect.
Part 2 centers on specific Lives, beginning with John Henderson’s reading of Julius Caesar, followed by Rebecca Langlands and Erik Gunderson, both focusing on Augustus. While Gunderson’s sophisticated analysis underlines the exemplarity (material and textual) that Augustus himself wished to transmit, Langlands claims that Augustus, for all his efforts, failed to control his own legacy, as shown most clearly in the failure of his moral legislation and in his household’s sexual scandals. In her second contribution, Hurley observes that the death of Caligula, who is killed like a sacrificial victim, represents an ironic role-reversal for a man who presided over state religion and was known to have exclaimed, “Would that the Roman people had a single neck!” While Jean-Michel Hulls reads Domitian in line with recent scholarship on literary mirroring and ekphrasis, arguing that Domitian’s obsession with secrecy and solitude makes him appear as a nonperformer, Jeffrey Tatum’s engaging paper convincingly shows that Titus looks especially like Augustus, for he too succeeds in “adapting” to circumstances, erasing the cruelty of his early years by becoming an ideal ruler, particularly in posterity’s memory.
Part 3 shifts to the minor works. Roy Gibson offers a fascinating comparison of viri illustres as they emerge from Suetonius’ De Viris Illustribus and Pliny’s Letters. Both writers tend to favor certain eras and genres over others. While there are some convergences (for example, both authors have little interest in the later Julio–Claudian period), there are also significant differences (for example, Pliny’s marked preference for contemporary figures, as is to be expected in epistolography). Most interestingly, Gibson observes that when it [End Page 280] comes to social status and public standing, Pliny shows a more crystallized view of society than Suetonius, who is interested in men who can advance their status through their skill. This probably reflected the different statuses—senatorial and equestrian—of the two writers. In his third contribution, Power draws attention to Suetonius’ Famous Courtesans, of which the common view is challenged on three counts: (1) the work was probably in Latin (he proposes De Feminis Famosis); (2) it was not on prostitutes but on the literary mistresses of poetry; (3) it was a sort of commentary with biographical details. His bold...